date / BY The Australian's Graham Lloyd

Watching from the sidelines

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This story was originally published by The Australian on October 27, 2019 and has been republished with permission.

Overseas Chinese have mixed feelings about Hong Kong's fate under Beijing's rule.

Student Nikki Lo has a foot in two worlds of the Chinese diaspora. Born in Singapore, she has lived in Hong Kong for the past 20 years.

Lo has returned to Singapore to study, she says, because student places in HK are increasingly hard to get due to an influx of competition from mainland China.

Accommodation is far out of reach for the next generation of Hong Kong-born residents, adding fuel to protests about broader freedoms that have proved difficult for authorities to quell.

In Singapore, Lo is perplexed by the lack of concern for what is happening in Hong Kong.

Despite being born in Singapore she considers herself to be Hong Kong Chinese and sees mainland China as posing an existential threat.

She has friends taking part in the protests in Hong Kong.

“What they are scared of in the future when the ‘one country, two systems’ ends is that Hong Kong will become like China,” she tells The Australian’s investigation of the Chinese diaspora.

“I think they are scared they will lose freedom and that information will be blocked and one day they will just disappear because they do something against the government.”

Hong Kong student Nikki Lo is studying design and activism in Singapore. Picture: Vanessa Hunter

Picture: Hong Kong student Nikki Lo is studying design and activism in Singapore. (The Australian: Vanessa Hunter)

Fear of HK strife

Lo’s fears reflect the questions being asked about Beijing among the 60 million overseas Chinese people as The Australian travels across the Asia-Pacific to ask what the wealthy, educated and more nationalistically assertive Chinese migrants may mean for our region and the world.

Sitting in Singapore’s Haji Lane among a swirl of multicultural colour, food and music, Lo tells The Australian the social tensions in Hong Kong could one day come to Singapore.

Culturally, however, despite similar histories, Singapore and Hong Kong are radically different.

Student protests in Singapore are unheard of and would quickly be stamped down by the government, which has worked hard to impose observance of a national Singaporean identity.

The unruly actions playing out in Hong Kong are beyond the comprehension of most Singapore citizens.

There is no appetite for protest to support the rioting students.

And there is strong criticism about the vandalism and disrespect being shown in Hong Kong to the police, authorities and fellow citizens.

Professor Wang Gungwu, a China expert, has both a historical and contemporary perspective on the radical recent developments.

Wang was vice-chancellor of The University of Hong Kong from 1986 to 1995 in the lead-up to the British handover. Recognised on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for his services to Australia-Asia relations, he is a former chairman of the East Asian Institute in Singapore, where he now works, and is emeritus professor at the Australian National University.

Despite a recent escalation of rhetoric by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Wang says China does not know what to do about the Hong Kong protests.

“The ‘one country, two systems’ has always been to China’s advantage”, he says. “It has been very beneficial to China, Hong Kong and everybody else.

“All these protests are embarrassing but they would like to leave it as the system.”

Diverse and shifting

Wang, an expert on the history of the Chinese diaspora, insists the overseas-Chinese community must be appreciated for its great diversity rather than as a homogeneous group.

“The simplistic idea that they (overseas Chinese) are all the same more or less and that you can describe them in one broad picture has been very misleading”, Wang says.

“The variables are shifting even as we speak. How different governments respond affects how the Chinese government behaves.”

Wang says the Hong Kong residents are largely the descendants of people who did not want to live in China during the communist revolution in the late 1940s.

“Usually they are the same people who want to go to America or Australia but can’t get there so they go to Hong Kong first,” he says.

There is a superficial connection between Singapore and Hong Kong in that both were once British colonies.

But unlike Singapore, Wang says, Hong Kong still struggles to find its own identity. Part of the reason lies in Hong Kong’s deep historical connections and reliance on China, even when it was a British colony, he adds.

Singapore’s history of separation, on the other hand, set it on a very different path. Wang told the Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Bicentennial Conference this month that Hong Kong’s largely Chinese population never stopped being engaged in China’s affairs.

“It could be argued that they had balanced two systems under the shadow of China,” he says.

“Thus when the British left, that balance was lost and the China connection became overwhelming.”

For Singapore, the opposite happened. By 1965, the people of Singapore had internalised the early imperial linkages and set out to seek its place as a global city and turn its diverse society into a viable and prosperous state.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

Rise of a rich China

The economic rise of China presents new challenges.

Beijing has learned that neglecting southern China has resulted in its near-collapse in the past.

Gungwu says China will not allow its coast to be vulnerable again and expects its relationship with Singapore to reflect that understanding.

As a balance, he says, Singapore must rebuild its connections with ASEAN neighbours to enable that organisation to deal with the rivalries involving new great powers.

Within its own community, Singapore has little reason to fear an uprising in support of protest events in Hong Kong.

One of Singapore’s best-known dissidents, Gilbert Goh, says the Hong Kong students have gone too far.

Goh is best known for leading a protest that attracted 5000 people against a government white paper on immigration in 2013. He has been unable to find work in Singapore since then.

Goh admits he had trouble adjusting to life back in Singapore after living in Sydney for five years.

In Singapore, he says, if you want to protest you have to have a very thick skin. After the immigration protests Goh say he was interrogated by police and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Their main concern was whether he had received foreign funding to organise the demonstrations.

Beijing's warning

Kumaran Pillai, publisher of The Independent Singapore website, says the government position on Hong Kong has been that people should be careful what is on the flip side of the coin.

“They are warning citizens not to take what we have for granted,” he says.

Those whose sympathies lie with China are offended by the violence on display in Hong Kong.

Tony Wang, a first-generation Singapore resident, says “we all know what is happening with stupid young people in Hong Kong”.

“Democracy is not about having more than one party,” he says.

“It is about making people have better lives.”

Young people in Singapore had lost interest in HK, he adds.

“Two months ago they were talking about Hong Kong, now we don’t care,” he says. “Once they started attacking police we are not seeing democracy.”

Another Chinese migrant, Vic Xuyun, says the Chinese government has given the Hong Kong students too much freedom.

“Our opinion is people are the most important thing — that people can live happily,” Xuyun says.

“We know a lot of young people, they become protesters, they want to voice out their thoughts but I would say they can choose a peaceful way instead of damaging things and disturbing other Hong Kong people.

“The government already announced they would not recommend Singaporeans to visit Hong Kong because of unrest.”

Tony Du Zhiquiang, a Singapore citizen who migrated from China 30 years ago, says Hong Kong is a complex issue.

“Hong Kong has always belonged to China but it is as if I had sent my son to the United States or to England to study,” he says.

“Maybe when they see me they will be different because of lifestyle, education and politics.

“China is still a communist country and is thinking, ‘You are my son and you must listen to me’.

“Hong Kong is used to democracy and freedom and China now understands very clearly their feeling.”

Lo says emerging tensions between Singapore and China are inevitable. “The PRC (People’s Republic of China) all want to go to Singapore and they are a tight group that will work together and the space for Singapore people will become lesser,” she says.

One big difference is that the Singaporean government is more mindful of the social safety net of accessible housing than HK.

And Lo sees little prospect of her fellow students in Singapore staging a revolt. “To be honest, I don’t think they know exactly what to protest about,” Lo says.

“They know inside that there is something that is restricting me but they don’t know exactly what they need to go against. I don’t think they will have the guts to go against the government.”

Artist seized chance to think outside the square

Were it not for the turmoil of the Tiananmen Square uprising, Hong Zhu An may never have become one of Singapore’s most famous artists.

Hong was not involved in the 1989 student protests in Beijing but when the doors opened to leave China, he seized the chance to join the world of art.

Had he stayed, Shanghai-born Hong says he may still be a lecturer at the art school where he had worked.

Hong was inspired by the works of Australia’s Brett Whiteley but he spent four years drawing character portraits on the streets of Kings Cross and Darling Harbour in Sydney before finally returning to art.

In China, Hong had had a very rigorous training, being accepted into the prestigious Shanghai Art and Craft Institute, the first art school opened after the Cultural Revolution.

Despite being recognised as a talented artist, Hong was unable to sell his paintings in Australia.

Sensing failure, he set about returning to China but saw an advertisement for an art competition in Singapore on the aeroplane back home.

He won first prize.

Today, Hong works from a three-level detached house in Changi where his paintings hang among elaborately carved and antique furniture.

His works are on permanent display in major galleries in Singapore, New York and San Francisco.

Hong says he now considers himself to be Singaporean. He loves tea and paints in his bedroom.

His paintings are a mixture of layered brush work on delicate traditional papers and calligraphy.

Hong says the chance to study cave art and indigenous paintings in Australia enriched his work. His art is inspired by landscapes and has been described as the landscape of his mind.

Increasingly, however, Hong’s focus is on large-format calligraphy.

Hong says he has made a conscious decision to stay in Singapore.

“It is very peaceful and I am able to be a full-time artist. In China would be more difficult,” he says.

“Before Tiananmen, China never opened the door for people to go overseas. After Tiananmen the government let us go overseas.

“I saw the door was open so I left to see the Western art. Art has no boundaries.”

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The Australian's series about China's diaspora is supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

Graham Lloyd is The Australian's Environment Editor.